Between friends, are there cracks in the cold war consensus?
As his much anticipated summit meeting in Geneva with Russian president Vladimir Putin approaches, U.S. President Joe Biden has been on the receiving end of much unsolicited public advice from former Obama officials such as Ben Rhodes and Michael McFaul as to how to deal with his Russian counterpart.
Even members of the press corps are wondering how Mr. Biden plans to confront Mr. Putin over the latter’s long litany of offenses against the United States. That now familiar list includes Russia’s interference in the 2016 and 2020 U.S. presidential elections, and the hacking of the Colonial Pipeline. Some even throw in the infamous Russian bounties on American soldiers, despite that story being uncorroborated and largely discredited.
The Blob has decreed and thus it should be so: The new cold war requires the American president to show “strength” and “resolve” in the face of the Russian strongman.
And maybe it does.
But in light of the other item on Mr. Biden’s European agenda, that of the G7 meeting in Cornwall, England, that will precede the U.S.-Russia summit, it may be worth pondering whether the underlying assumptions with regard to Russian malfeasance and how to deal with it, is shared by our closest allies. After all, Mr. Biden and his team have long stated that they plan to take a conciliatory approach to make up for what was often said to be Trump’s bullying of America’s closest friends and allies. Biden and Co. have made it clear that they plan to treat European concerns with the seriousness and respect they deserve.
It has become common for writers, correspondents, and foreign policy analysts to view the new cold war in the same lens as the first one: That of a competition or standoff between “Russia and The West” (and I am as guilty of employing that shorthand as anyone). Yet do current European trends justify viewing the current great power competition in such broad strokes? In other words, are our European allies in lockstep behind the U.S. foreign policy establishment’s desire to turn the world’s largest nuclear power into a pariah state?
If the public statements of French President Emmanuel Macron are anything to go on, the answer is “probably not.” During his 2017 campaign for the French presidency, Macron described the foreign policy of his immediate predecessors (Sarkozy and Hollande) as a form of imported “neoconservatism” and, by way of contrast, pledged he would pursue a Gaullist policy that would move away from the narrow confines of cold war era Atlanticism. In the succeeding years, Macron has criticized NATO (in blunt terms that de Gaulle himself might have used) as having “experienced brain death.” In a conversation with the Financial Times this past February Macron said, “Nobody can tell me that today’s Nato is a structure that, in its foundations, is still pertinent. It was founded to face down the Warsaw Pact. There is no more a Warsaw Pact.”
He has also questioned the wisdom — so entrenched in Washington — of trying to isolate Russia from the West. As recently as 2019, Macron backed the idea of Russia’s return to the Council of Europe as well as its participation in future G7 meetings.
Indeed, the French have long been frustrated with what they view as America’s heavy-handed policy toward Russia, particularly with regard to its over reliance on sanctions. As the Paris-based correspondent Diane Johnstone has reported, U.S. legislation targeting French and German companies doing business with the Nord Stream pipeline consortium and Iran (what are known as “secondary sections”) have sparked outrage in the French capital.
Similar frustrations have been building in Germany over U.S. efforts to stymie the construction of Nord Stream. German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier has spoken out against American efforts to burn “one of the last bridges between Russia and Europe” while Chancellor Angela Merkel’s possible successor, Armin Laschet (who has described himself as a “pragmatist”) has a pro-business record that leaves some pro-NATO Atlanticists worried he is not the hardened cold warrior needed in these times.
In May, Macron noted that “We are at a moment of truth in our relationship with Russia, which should lead us to rethink the terms of the tension that we decide to put in place.” And it does seem that there is plenty of re-thinking going on in Paris and Berlin about the wisdom of an enduring East-West confrontation. With the Geneva summit on the horizon, the Biden team might begin to take seriously its own rhetoric about the importance of listening to our allies.